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Frederick Alexander James (1884–1957)

by P. A. Howell

This article was published:

Frederick Alexander James (1884-1957), merchant and litigant, was born on 17 December 1884 at East Marden, South Australia, second son of Thomas James and his wife Emily, née Pitt. Thomas had an extensive trade in fresh and dried fruit, marketed under his 'Trevarno' label. After intermittently attending various state schools and Muirden College for Business Training in 1900-01, Frederick entered the family business which he and his brother Charles carried on after their father's retirement in 1910. On 19 October 1910 in the Moseley Street Methodist Church, Glenelg, Frederick married Rachel May Scarborough who gave him three daughters and two sons.

The James brothers were financially embarrassed when, during the severe drought accompanying the start of World War I, they received no payment for a shipment of fruit to Germany. The partnership was dissolved in 1915, but Frederick set up as a wholesaler on his own and paid his debts. He also bought land at Berri where he established orchards and vineyards. From 1920 his business as a dried fruit dealer grew rapidly. The National Bank of Australasia Ltd lent him up to £12,000 each year to purchase from other growers vine fruits which he processed, packed and marketed using the 'Trevarno' mark. He ensured supplies by advancing money to or guaranteeing the overdrafts of needy ex-servicemen settled on Riverland blocks, the borrowers being obliged to offer him their entire crop.

By 1923-24 the soldier-settler schemes had led to over-production, just when the world market was depressed. The Australian Dried Fruits Association, comprising most growers and dealers, attempted to restrict output voluntarily so all producers could share in the more profitable Australian and New Zealand markets. When this failed, the association persuaded the Commonwealth and four State governments to set up boards to regulate domestic and overseas sales. To keep the home price artificially high, each grower was permitted to sell in Australia only a prescribed proportion of his produce. The remainder was to be sold abroad under the direction of the Commonwealth Dried Fruits Control Board. This irked James. He had never joined the A.D.F.A. His strict quality controls meant Australian demand for 'Trevarno' products was still rising. Many smallholders preferred to sell their fruit to him because he offered fixed prices and could pay cash on delivery. Those who consigned fruit to A.D.F.A. dealers had to wait about a year for payment and sale was not guaranteed. James believed that if the weak went to the wall, the governments whose policies had created the overproduction crisis should not solve it by depriving efficient producers of their just rewards.

When learning typing and shorthand, James had practised by repeatedly copying the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act. His familiarity with it now led him to suspect that vital provisions of the marketing-scheme legislation were in conflict with section 92, guaranteeing freedom of interstate trade. He obtained a licence for his packing-shed and registration as a dealer, but resolved to obey the directives of the dried fruits boards only when they suited him. In 1925, without prior notice to the Commonwealth board, he managed to sell most of his export quota in New Zealand where prices averaged £16 a ton more than in London. When he tried to do the same in 1926, the board annulled the contracts.

James was then advised that his Australian quota for 1926 was a mere 68 tons, and that he could send 5 tons a month on consignment on London. Compliance with these decrees would have ruined him, as he had just purchased over 400 tons of dried fruit from smallholders. In June his Australian quota was raised to 136 tons. However, after consulting a young Berri solicitor Kevin Ward, who agreed that some of the enabling legislation might be invalid, James sold an additional 240 tons to brokers in New South Wales and Victoria. In September the South Australian board instituted proceedings against him, and thus began a series of twenty-eight lawsuits with governments and statutory bodies. Several of these cases dragged on for years, but ultimately he was wholly or partially successful, and was awarded costs, in all but one.

His most famous cases have generated an extensive literature. In James v. South Australia (1927) the High Court of Australia held that the State Act empowering the South Australian Dried Fruits Board to control sales beyond the State was an infringement of s.92 of the Constitution. The State then tried to stop him selling fruit interstate by invoking its board's powers of compulsory acquisition. In James v. Cowan (1930), a majority of the High Court upheld these powers, but on appeal (1932) the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council reversed the judgment. Anticipating this outcome, in August 1928 the Commonwealth had begun to try to control the domestic dried fruits market as well as the export market, relying on the High Court's judgment in McArthur's case (1920) that s.92 bound the States only. However in James v. The Commonwealth (1928) the High Court accepted James's contention that the Commonwealth regulations were invalid because they discriminated between the States and thus contravened s.99 of the Constitution.

New regulations were proclaimed, and when the Federal board refused James a renewal of his dealer's licence and began seizing his fruit without compensation he challenged the Commonwealth's power to prevent him from engaging in interstate trade. In James v. The Commonwealth (1935) the High Court confirmed its previous declaration that s.92 did not bind the Commonwealth, but a majority indicated that they adhered to the doctrine mainly because they felt bound by the court's previous decisions. James again appealed to the Privy Council which ruled in 1936 that s.92 bound the Commonwealth as well as the States. This immediately nullified legislation governing the marketing of a wide range of primary products. A referendum to amend s.92, held in March 1937, was defeated; in South Australia only 18.25 per cent of the electors voted 'Yes'.

James won the legal battles but the politicians and boards won the war, for they invented new means of gaining their objects as quickly as he found loopholes. His schemes for outwitting government inspectors, including the use of other producers' packing-sheds and 'border-hopping' by land and sea, so vexed his opponents that they behaved vindictively. He planned to market 3000 boxes of seeded raisins in 1927, but the State board abolished his raisin quota and by compulsory acquisitions prevented him seeding more than 50 boxes. The initial Dried Fruits Acts covered only vine fruits; when he developed a substantial trade in dried stone fruits, the legislation was extended to cover them. In 1930-33 and 1935-36 he was denied the use of the railways, and ship and lorry owners were informed they would lose their carriers' licences if they carried his fruit. There were some bizarre incidents as when in 1929 the South Australian minister of agriculture, (Sir) John Cowan, having been subpoenaed, took refuge in parliament for a fortnight. Twice when James had decided to accept a quieter life and obey the rules, bureaucratic bungling prompted him to renew the struggle.

The real victors in James's cases were the lawyers, whose fees sometimes totalled over £10,000. His twenty-eight years association with Kevin Ward brought the latter fame, fortune and silk. Yet it was always James who did the lateral thinking; Ward clothed his client's ideas in legal language. The National Bank, which financed James's litigation, was equally satisfied, for his cases had led the courts to declare that s.92 of the Constitution has the effect of protecting private enterprise from State and Commonwealth interference. This enabled the private banks to escape nationalization in the 1940s.

In December 1927 James had moved back to Adelaide, where he diversified by establishing a fruit cannery and jam and sauce factories at Southwark. He also purchased 4000 acres (1619 ha) of timbered country near Second Valley, on Fleurieu Peninsula. He cleared it, became a beef, lamb and wool producer, and grew tomatoes for his sauce factory. In 1937 he sold his dried fruit business for £20,000. He claimed he had lost sales of 6500 tons of dried fruit because of Commonwealth intervention, but when he sued for damages in 1938-39, Justice (Sir Owen) Dixon's strict legalism saved the day for the government, and James was awarded only £878.

An early member of the Country Party, James resigned when it espoused organized marketing. Failing to gain United Australia Party endorsement for the 1937 Federal elections, he stood as an Independent for the Senate, campaigning for removal of controls on road transport. He won 7.9 per cent of the valid votes, a record for a South Australian Independent in Senate elections.

Diminutive yet robust, a go-getter who was ruthless with his debtors, James made few friends but enjoyed overseas travel, motoring and race meetings. The strain of the long war of nerves took its toll, especially on his wife, who had managed his undertakings during his frequent absences. In 1936 his marriage finally broke down and his wife instituted divorce proceedings. She dropped the suit when James settled out of court, but the extent of her alimony demands had surprised tax inspectors who promptly wrought vengeance on her spouse. He lost one private suit in 1937 when a dried fruits inspector sued him for damages for slander.

James's wife died in 1949. On 19 April 1950 he married Constance Winifred Timothy-Keighley, who survived him. He died at Toorak Gardens on 19 March 1957. His estate was sworn for probate at £90,359.

Select Bibliography

  • D. B. Copland and C. V. Janes, Australian Marketing Problems (Syd, 1938)
  • H. H. Pitt and M. N. Wicks, The Pitt Family of Payneham (Adel, 1977)
  • South Australian State Reports, 1929, 1931
  • Round Table, 27 (1936-37), p 194, 651
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 40-43, 52, 55, 62
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1932, 18, 20-25 July 1936, 16 Mar 1938
  • Age (Melbourne), 18-24 July 1936
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21-23 Oct, 13 Nov 1937, 26 Feb, 15, 16 Mar 1938, 3 Nov 1949, 20 Mar 1957
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'James, Frederick Alexander (1884–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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